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Yellow signs are scattered throughout the streets surrounding the Trinitarian Congregational Church in North Andover, pleading for the parish to reconsider its plan to allow installation of cellular antennas in its steeple.
For many residents in the neighborhood near the church at 72 Elm St., cell towers are the last thing they want to worry about.
“There is too much contradicting information about how harmful this can be,” said Lauretta Wentworth, who lives on Pleasant Street, less than 100 yards from the church. “You have experts who say that it’s harmless to put cell towers in. And you have just as many experts who say that it is harmful. Though the jury is still out on this, we are the ones who will be exposed to it 24-seven.”
The church and MetroPCS Communications Inc. are applying for a special permit from the town to put six cellular antennas inside the church’s steeple. Another wireless company, T-Mobile, has also shown interest in installing antennas at the church. Residents voiced concerns at a hearing before the town’s Planning Board on Jan. 27. At the board’s next meeting on Feb. 24, a review of the application will begin.
“I don’t know if a decision will be made at the next meeting,” Judith M. Tymon, town planner, said in a recent interview. “There will be more information looked at from their application, more review will take place, and we will consider what the public said from the last meeting.”
Whatever the decision, Tymon said an appeal to the board may be made within 20 days. If the special permit is granted, the church must then apply for a building permit before the antennas could be installed.
Asked why it would allow the installation in the face of neighbors’ opposition, a church official said the antennas would benefit the community.
“The church’s membership is open to the addition of a stealth cell tower primarily because both MetroPCS and T-Mobile contacted us and indicated that our Elm Street location would fill a gap in wireless service,” David Deems, moderator for the church, said in an e-mail. “Given how many individuals and businesses including emergency services today use cellphones, smart phones, and mobile devices, we believed that considering a cell tower option in our steeple would benefit our community.”
But some residents say they worry about the potential for health risks from radio waves from the antennas. Another major concern, they say, is the impact the cellular equipment will have on property values.
Deems said an independent radio-frequency engineer was hired by the town to look into the safety issue, who found that any emissions from the installation would be well below Federal Communications Commission guidelines. He also said the engineer’s report concluded that the emissions would also be well below the emissions that exist in the neighborhood from other installed and operational sources.
Still, many remain opposed to the antennas; a large number of residents turned out for the Jan. 27 hearing to voice concerns, according to Wentworth, who says she has submitted a petition to the Planning Board signed by 193 people against the construction.
“It would be really unfair to do this,” she said of the installation. “According to the town’s own bylaws, there can be no cellular towers constructed within 600 feet of homes and schools.”
Wentworth is referring to a town bylaw stating that no cellular structure may be constructed within 600 feet of homes and schools – an ordinance against free-standing cellular towers, out of fear that the towers could fall. However, the bylaw also says that the 600-foot rule does not apply when a tower is constructed on an existing structure.
The church, meanwhile, says it has taken abuse as a result of its plans. Deems said some neighbors have obtained the church’s private mailing list of members and sent anonymous, harassing letters to members of its congregation.
“Through our ongoing discussions with other residents in the neighborhood, we’ve learned that these tactics are very familiar to the residents, and the majority tries their best to avoid association with the methods employed by the small outspoken group,” Deems said.
He said the church’s consideration to allow the antennas has been an exhaustive process that has taken much planning.
“We have taken very collaborative steps in considering this cell tower proposal. We’ve held open forums, discussions, and meetings, and our pastor has spoken with many neighbors in person,” said Deems. “No decision has yet been made, but when we do make a decision, it will be a decision made after a significant amount of research, time, effort, thought, and prayer.”
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